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Published: 10/28/2004 - by Erin Riches, Senior Editor
Building rugged vehicles is what Jeep does best, and since its introduction in 1993, the Grand Cherokee has always been the best off-roader in the midsize SUV class. Trouble is, most SUV purchases aren't motivated by a desire for hard-core off-road capability. For years this difference in priorities was of no consequence. The second-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee was stylish, powerful and even plush when it arrived on the market for 1999. It was also immensely popular — 271,000 were sold in 2000. But sales slid when roomier, better-handling SUVs like the car-based Toyota Highlander and the current Ford Explorer arrived on the market. Hopes are pegged on the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee to change all that.
Today it doesn't matter whether you were built to conquer the Rubicon or the expressway: Consumers expect their SUVs to behave themselves on pavement while providing fully functional family transportation. The old Jeep Grand Cherokee did neither very well. And its spotty reputation for reliability certainly didn't help.
Needless to say, the 2005 redesign couldn't have come soon enough. At first glance, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee (JGC) seems better in every way. It's 5 inches longer and an inch wider than before, and rides on a longer wheelbase and a wider track. While a few inches here and there might seem insignificant, such gains typically result in greater interior room and more stable handling, and the Grand Cherokee benefits in both areas, according to Jeep. Further handling improvement comes from its new independent front suspension (in place of last year's solid axle), more sophisticated five-link rear suspension and the use of rack and pinion steering (in place of last year's recirculating ball setup) — all serve to create a more modern vehicle that doesn't feel like it needs a chaperon when taken onto public roads.
Although last year's 4.7-liter V8 was no slouch off the line, Chrysler's prized 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is a new engine option this year. In the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Hemi is rated for 330 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque. It's also equipped with Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System, which deactivates half the cylinders when acceleration demands are light — improving fuel economy by as much as 20 percent, according to the company. Not everyone wants a Hemi, though, so buyers can still get a 235-hp version of the 4.7-liter this year, as well as the 210-hp, 3.7-liter V6 used in the Liberty. Based on our initial drive, buyers can expect adequate power from the V6, despite the fact that the Grand Cherokee gained about 500 pounds in the redesign (regardless of configuration).
The four-wheel-drive systems have grown in sophistication — all are now electronically controlled, full-time systems that are compatible with stability control (optional on all models). For budget-minded buyers who merely need a snow vehicle in the winter, Jeep is offering a single-speed system that continuously engages all four wheels without requiring the driver to push any buttons or pull any levers (it's standard on V6 models). For those who know they'll be doing at least some off-roading in their Jeep Grand Cherokee, there's the Quadra-Trac II system, which provides both high- and low-range gearing. And for those with more serious off-road intentions, there's Quadra-Drive II, which adds electronically controlled limited-slip differentials in both the front and rear. These differentials lock automatically when needed, allowing your Grand Cherokee to keep moving even if only one wheel has traction.
With all of these under-the-skin upgrades and a revamped interior to boot, we were enthused by the possibility of a visit with a loaded-up Grand Cherokee Limited model. Ours had the "25K" equipment group, which provides the Hemi V8, Quadra-Drive II, stability control, heated seats, a sunroof and the UConnect system, which allows you to make voice-activated calls using your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and the Jeep's speakers. This package also upgrades the standard all-season tires to performance tires (further sharpening up the handling), but our test vehicle was outfitted for off-roading via a stand-alone all-terrain tire option that switched to 17-inch Goodyear Wranglers. Other extras included a rear DVD player, a DVD-based navigation system, full-length side curtain airbags, rear parking sensors and satellite radio (Sirius). Our Jeep also had the inexpensive tire-pressure monitor display option ($85), which turned out to be very handy — it's integrated into the trip computer display so that you can easily see the psi of all four tires (in other words, no more excuses for driving around on underinflated tires). The only major options that this Grand Cherokee didn't have were skid plates and a tow hitch, so we weren't surprised by its hefty MSRP — $41,625.
You might imagine that such a feature-laden vehicle would be impossible to dislike. However, after a week of testing, the case for buying the 2005 JGC was not as clear-cut as we had anticipated. We loved the way it drove for the most part. And most of its in-cabin technology was easy to use. But the rest of the interior was a disappointment — and could prove to be the Jeep's undoing in the midsize SUV segment.
Take a quick glance at the new cabin design and you'll probably like what you see. The dash has crisp lines, somewhat upscale texturing and a definite two-tone color scheme. The mish-mash of Chrysler-issue center stack controls in the old model has been replaced by a well-organized set of controls that appear to have been scavenged from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin. The metal-ringed gauges are a bit plain but clean in appearance and easy to read.
However, start touching the various surfaces in the cabin and it gets ugly. The dash and door panels are covered in hard plastic — the cheap, thin kind of plastic you find in lower-end economy cars. Try as we might, there was no way to convince ourselves this stuff was acceptable in a $40,000-plus vehicle, especially since it was rough to the touch. Not only is this plastic some of the worst you'll find in this price range, to several of our editors, it seemed worse than the plastics used in the old model. Likewise, the two-tone leather upholstery in our 2005 Limited was of average quality but didn't compare to the more upscale gathered leather formerly standard on this trim level. The faux wood trim, at least, is better than the old stuff — so long as you don't judge it against the real wood in the top-end 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland.
We don't mean to suggest that the old Grand Cherokee's interior furnishings were a model of excellence. They weren't. But there was a sort of over-the-top luxury to the old Limited and Overland models that has been wrung out of the new JGC. Maybe this kind of excess only belongs in Mercedes-Benz models in DaimlerChrysler's view. Yet the Jeep Grand Cherokee has become a ritzy nameplate in the midsize SUV segment, and our test vehicle's big price tag reflects that. Its cut-rate interior does not.
Although just about everyone on our staff was turned off by the Jeep's materials, editors had differing opinions on the comfort of the seats, at least the front seats. Previously, the JGC was known for its big, overstuffed front chairs. Some found them luxurious. But many found them severely lacking in firm support — and downright uncomfortable on long trips. Jeep noted this complaint and commissioned a much firmer set of seats for the 2005 model. Several editors really liked the new seats, commenting on how much more supportive they were.
But several other drivers didn't care for them. "I appreciate the extra support," said one, "but they've lost any hint of plushness. Also, I couldn't warm up to the shaping of the seats. Over a long weekend, I was continually fiddling with the power controls trying to find a more comfortable position." Another driver, Road Test Editor Brian Moody, logged this complaint, "I don't like that one of the seams in the driver seat runs the length of my thigh and begins to pinch after about 45 minutes of driving." No one liked the center armrest, which had a hard, rubber top instead of the soft, padded one in the previous Grand Cherokee. Not only was it a bit too low to provide effective elbow support, its edges were sharp and the rubber tended to grip and pull our arm hair.
These issues are minor, though, compared to the problems in the backseat. In fact, we can say with confidence this is one of the worst backseats in any midsize SUV. The seat bottom is short, low and hard, such that anyone over 5 feet in height will find himself sitting with splayed legs and zero thigh support. The seat back cushion is similarly low on padding and does not recline. Shoulder room is decent, but legroom is mediocre and can be tight when the front occupants move their seats all the way back. Two average-size adults sat unhappily in the back of our test vehicle for several hours. There should be adequate room for most elementary school-age children, but the short seat bottom may impede the installation of toddlers' bulky car seats.
While most competitors give buyers the option of getting a third-row seat, the Jeep Grand Cherokee still doesn't offer this feature — in order to maintain its "just right" size for off-roading, according to company officials. If you want three rows of seating, you'll have to wait for the upcoming Jeep Commander, a larger SUV that will be built on the Cherokee platform.
Fortunately, off-roading is something this SUV still does very well. Engineers increased the suspension travel during the redesign, and the result is plenty of wheel articulation over dips and rises. The steering is perfectly weighted for maneuvering around tight turns on two-track trails, and the Goodyear Wranglers dig eagerly into the dirt. Plus, even with our Hemi-equipped test vehicle's extra poundage (4,735 pounds total), the Jeep felt nimble and playful as if it was pleased to have been taken on the adventure.
But if you're a more serious off-roader, there's some bad news. The 2005 Grand Cherokee has less ground clearance and smaller approach and departure angles than the old model. Formerly, the JGC stood 8.7 inches off the ground; now it's down to 8 even. Jeep's consumer site claims the '05 model has 8.5 inches of clearance, but we checked the media kit specs and noted that this measurement was taken from the front axle — the rear differential is the actual lowest point on the vehicle. Although our short off-roading trip suggested that the SUV can take its share of punishment, we would strongly encourage serious off-roaders to get the optional skid plates.
This reduction in ride height may prove to be a liability for Jeep, given that the current Toyota 4Runner and the new Nissan Pathfinder offer similar levels of all-terrain prowess along with added clearance, 9.1 inches and 9.2 inches, respectively (although the JGC still has better approach/departure angles). They also offer hill ascent assist (prevents the vehicle from sliding back when the driver releases the brake) and descent assist technology (allows for a controlled pace on steep downhill grades). Purists may argue that the Jeep is better off without these "electronic nannies," but we contend that these systems can be a big help for novice off-roaders — and anyone who has ever gotten in a little over his head.
For the other 95 percent of your driving, the Jeep should mostly satisfy. Ride quality is much smoother and more composed than before. And aside from the wind noise that comes with driving a tall, boxy vehicle, it's a quiet ride with minimal thrum from the tires. If you end up using a Grand Cherokee for commuter duty, you're not going to get constant reminders that you should have gone with a more sensible vehicle.
At the same time, it doesn't quite feel like a car. The long-travel suspension that makes it so tough on 4x4 trails leads to a moderate amount of float and bob over bumps and freeway expansion joints. It's nothing you haven't already experienced if you own an older Grand Cherokee, but if you're accustomed to the smoothness of a car-based SUV, you may not like it. Moreover, we feel that even the body-on-frame Toyota 4Runner does a better job of ironing out these irregularities. Jeep is evidently aware of Toyota's mastery in this area and plans to offer something called Dynamic Handling System (DHS), which hydraulically adjusts the stabilizer bars to smooth out the ride and reduce body roll around turns. It sounds suspiciously like the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System found on the Lexus GX 470; if you're interested, note that this option has been delayed until midyear.
Even without the benefit of DHS, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is a fine handler. Body roll was present but not excessive when negotiating turns, and the SUV settled in predictably every time. It felt especially secure around high-speed curves. We were particularly impressed by the steering, which is reasonably quick and always seems to have just the right amount of heft — quite a contrast to the slow, lazy steering in the old model.
We also noted improvement in the all-important area of braking, never a strong point of the old model. The brake pedal's long stroke can take a little getting used to, but its progressive action is ultimately reassuring in the cutthroat environment of urban freeways. We were, however, disappointed by the Jeep's behavior during a few simulated emergency stops. Problems with our testing equipment prevented us from generating hard numbers, but not before Editor in Chief Karl Brauer made these observations: "When braking there seems to be a fair amount of body roll, and it tends to pull in both directions. It's also important to note that every time we came to an abrupt halt, the oil light came on. I had to give it a poor rating, because you can't have the car pulling back and forth like that; even in an SUV, it's just not a secure feeling."
Acceleration certainly wasn't a problem in our test vehicle, which basically jumped off the line (the throttle needs a light touch around town) and pulled strongly for the duration of the Hemi V8's power band. The engine was unfazed by steep highway grades, and passing and merging maneuvers came with ease. Although the Hemi makes its share of noise under heavy throttle, it's virtually silent at a cruise. At times, we felt the five-speed automatic transmission could have been quicker to come up with downshifts, but shift quality was refined. As in the Dodge Durango, there's a tow-haul mode that keeps the transmission from upshifting prematurely when pulling a heavy load. You can tow up to 7,200 pounds on Hemi-equipped models and carry payloads (passengers plus cargo) of up to 1,050 pounds.
As in the Chrysler 300C and Dodge Magnum, the fuel-saving Multi-Displacement System proved seamless in its transitions between eight- and four-cylinder operation in the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Unfortunately, our test vehicle still didn't do very well on mileage. Against EPA ratings of 14 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, the Jeep averaged just 13.4 mpg in mixed driving. Consider that a Hemi-equipped Durango we tested earlier this year averaged 13.8 mpg despite the fact that it was carrying 400 extra pounds of curb weight and didn't have the variable displacement feature.
Of course, both of these mileage figures are lousy. In comparison, the 15.8-mpg lifetime average of our long-term 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, equipped with the smaller 4.7-liter V8, seems downright acceptable. Although we'd like to say that you could expect similar results from a 2005 model with the 4.7-liter, we have our doubts: Our '99 model weighed about 4,100 pounds; the 2005 version weighs about 4,600. This is a substantial weight gain and will almost certainly drag down mileage. On the plus side, the 4.7-liter V8 only requires 87 octane fuel, whereas 89 is recommended for the Hemi. It's worth noting, though, that our test vehicle ran just fine on regular unleaded.
Although we weren't too impressed with the basic accommodations, the more time we spent in the cabin, the more we began to appreciate some of the details. The automatic, dual-zone climate control system, for instance, still uses infrared technology to measure the body temperature of the driver and front passenger. The result is that the SUV's climate control gets a lot closer to maintaining a comfortable 72 degrees than auto systems that measure only the air temperature. We also liked the design of the wiper control stalk which combines the settings for the front and rear wipers (other cars bury the rear wiper control in the center stack). Set the front wipers on intermittent, and the rain-sensing function (exclusive to the Limited) is activated; we found it quite responsive to the amount of moisture hitting the windshield. Other visibility aids include the auto-dimming feature on all three mirrors, which made the Jeep Grand Cherokee a lot more pleasant to drive at night. Additionally, the headlights are not the high-intensity discharge (xenon) variety, but designers have added a Smartbeam feature that automatically turns on the high beams when you drive onto a particularly dark road, and dims then again when traffic approaches. The parking sensors came in handy as well, and we liked the fact that they were inconspicuously integrated into the rear bumper.
While not the simplest interface we've ever come across, the Jeep's DVD-based navigation system operated in a straightforward manner. It uses a joystick rather than a touchscreen, but rather than simply pushing the joystick in to make a selection, you must hit a separate "enter" button. Still, editors liked the wide selection of external buttons, which allowed them to get to the page they wanted without cycling through menus. Besides providing on-road route instruction, the system has an off-road feature, which gives latitude and longitude coordinates and altitude readings.
The other bit of technology worth your attention is the UConnect system, which is basically a must for anyone who regularly gets on the phone while driving. Within five minutes' time, we had "paired" our Bluetooth-compatible phone and were talking to a friend through the vehicle's speakers. Once your phone is linked, all you need to do to make a call is press a button on the rearview mirror and respond orally to the voice prompts. We did find that some effort was required to speak in a manner that the system could understand (perhaps the remnants of a Southern drawl were to blame).
Storage and cupholders are something you rarely think about during the initial test-drive, but spend any amount of time with a vehicle and they become indispensable conveniences. Jeep designers did a particularly good job of designing the storage spaces up front, as there are rubber-lined slots and containers everywhere you look — we had no trouble corralling an assortment of phones, sunglasses, mints and pens. In back, you'll find a single map pocket, small door bins and a shallow container in the fold-down armrest — sounds good, but there's no place for the wireless headphones that come with the entertainment system. Cupholders are another trouble spot — the two in the backseat are pretty large but the ones up front can't hold much more than a medium coffee. And where are the bottle holders in the doors? This is an adventure vehicle, after all.
Cargo capacity in another potential trouble spot. Maximum capacity is just 67.4 cubic feet, down from 72.3 cubic feet in the old model. There's also less room behind the second-row seats — 34.5 cubes versus 39.0 previously. The cargo bay is at least wide, thanks to minimal intrusion from the wheel wells. Should you exhaust the available space, you can take advantage of the standard roof rack (adjustable cross bars included). The cargo floor also has a reversible waterproof section that allows you to contain wet clothes and leaky milk jugs. And for easy loading in the grocery store parking lot, just "double click" a button on the keyless remote and the rear glass will pop up independent of the liftgate.
Although the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is not without its good points — among these, its Hemi V8, secure handling, excellent off-road ability and many convenience features — it doesn't offer the complete package that you expect of an all-new design. More importantly, it doesn't give buyers enough reasons to choose it over SUVs like the 4Runner and Pathfinder. Both of these import-brand competitors offer driving dynamics as good as or better than the Grand Cherokee's, and larger, better-furnished interiors that give family buyers the option of getting a third-row seat. They may not be able to duplicate the legendary feel of a Jeep on rough terrain, but with their extra ground clearance and standard hill ascent and descent technology, who's going to care?
We suspect that Jeep is well aware of its brand-new SUV's shaky footing, as there's already a $1,000 rebate on the JGC. This may shore things up in the short-term, but an interior overhaul is what the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee really needs.
System Score: 6.0
Components: Considering our Grand Cherokee Limited model's $41,625 price, we were a little surprised by its relatively mundane sound system. As in the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum, the Limited gets a Boston Acoustics system (optional on the Laredo). But despite the fact that the Grand Cherokee is more expensive than those two, it gets the weakest amplifier — just 276 watts. And there are only six speakers — tweeters in either corner of the dash, a driver in each door and no subwoofer.
Even though that our test vehicle was equipped with a navigation system, it still had an in-dash six-disc CD changer — a combination you don't often find. Further, although the nav screen serves as the stereo display, you can tune and set a radio station, advance CD tracks or change discs without cycling through menus. There's also a mute button. Further, our Limited model was equipped with Chrysler's excellent back-of-the-steering-wheel controls. You can't see them, but these perfectly designed buttons allow you to adjust the volume and change tracks without lifting a hand from the wheel (in fact, for days afterward we were intuitively feeling around for these buttons in other cars we drove). These controls proved particularly useful in our test vehicle, which was equipped with Sirius Satellite Radio.
Performance: Bass response is strong initially and separation is decent. But there's not much spaciousness or warmth to what comes out of the speakers. Additionally, twisting the volume knob halfway up gave rock and jazz tracks a shrill, almost muddy sound.
Best Feature: Has both an in-dash CD changer and a navigation system.
Worst Feature: Output gets shrill with volume at half-blast.
Conclusion: After experiencing the excellent Infinity system in the Dodge Durango, we were expecting something at least as good in the more upscale Grand Cherokee. Although user-friendly, this Boston Acoustics system offers mediocre sound quality. — Erin Riches
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
As soon as I got into the new Grand Cherokee, I could tell it was all new (not always the case when you first get in a redesigned vehicle). The driver seat felt better, steering response was more refined and, of course, the Hemi engine felt more powerful. Going through the twisty part of my commute, I successfully chased down a late-'90s Honda Civic with a big exhaust tip. I could almost sense his amazement at (and annoyance with) the rugged-looking SUV that was filling his mirrors on a curving canyon road.
On the way home, I stopped for fuel and decided to try out the rear seat as the tank was being filled. Ouch! Is this really the rear seat? Feels more like a park bench at my kindergartener's school yard. The seat bottom is too low and short, providing zero leg support, and both the seat bottom and the seat back lack adequate padding. My growing affinity for the all-new Grand Cherokee was suddenly shattered. I still like the looks, and I like the reversible cargo cover that doubles as a shallow bin for muddy lifestyle accessories. But our near-$42,000 test car didn't even have a power-operated rear hatchback. The new Jeep almost had me dazzled. Almost.
Senior Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
After six years of development time, I was expecting more from this Jeep. The previous generation was one of the best midsizers of its time, but after some seat time in this all-new version I wouldn't consider it a big leap forward. In fact, in some ways it's a step back. The interior materials are average at best and awful at worst, with plastics so bad they would barely be passable in a Hyundai let alone a $41K Jeep. The gauges look plain, the climate controls are flimsy and the backseats remain as tight as ever (hello, Jeep, are you paying attention?). It certainly has its positive attributes — vastly improved driving dynamics, strong all-around power from the big Hemi V8 and the kind of optional feature content buyers expect (DVD player, navigation, etc.), but with no third-row seat, limited room in the second row and little to offer that its competition doesn't, this Grand Cherokee is going to have a tough time convincing buyers it deserves their sizable monthly payments — it certainly wouldn't get mine.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Grand Cherokee has always been a vehicle I've felt conflicted about — I've never liked it all that much but I could never disagree with its combination of off-road ability and relative comfort.
This new Grand Cherokee is wider and thus roomier — the one improvement it has always needed. The V8 is powerful and smooth but the Grand Cherokee's V8 has never been a point of contention for me.
The interior looks good, but there are too many hard or unattractive surfaces. The door-mounted armrests have some soft padding but the vertical part is too hard and rubbed against my elbow. The same goes for the center console/armrest. It's too hard and the edges are too sharp — this made using it rather uncomfortable. I also don't like that one of the seams in the driver seat runs the length of my thigh and begins to feel kind of pinched after about 45 minutes of driving.
Positives include an easy-to-manage navigation system/radio with plenty of externally mounted buttons so you can get to the screen you want in a hurry.
This new Jeep is much better than the previous one, but I like the Durango better.
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